- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

CAIRO — The Bush administration said yesterday that it will not insist that Israel formally accept the “road map” for peace in the Middle East, saying the initial steps it has taken “in effect” mark the beginning of the plan’s implementation.

Israel, meanwhile, imposed a harsh travel ban on the Gaza Strip just a day after promising Secretary of State Colin L. Powell a series of humanitarian gestures, including the release of Palestinian detainees and allowing more than 20,000 workers to return to their jobs.

It was not clear how long Israel would maintain the travel ban, which it attributed to security concerns. Restrictions on Palestinian movements between West Bank cities, imposed after suicide bombings in Israel, remain in place.

The developments angered Arab leaders, who helped Washington in persuading the Palestinians to embrace the road map despite reservations about the way it deals with Israeli settlements and the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Asked about Israel’s refusal to endorse the road map, Mr. Powell said at a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher: “It makes no difference whether you have the word ‘accept’ or not have the word ‘accept.’

“What makes the difference is whether or not both sides find enough in common with the road map that they can begin the process of moving down this road.”

After meeting on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Powell said there was enough agreement on the blueprint to start implementing its initial measures.

“It is important to get started quickly, and I believe that Prime Minister Sharon has announced a variety of measures … that in effect constitute the beginning of the road map process,” Mr. Powell said.

Israeli as well as Palestinian officials said Mr. Powell had not pressed Mr. Sharon to accept the road map. A senior State Department official traveling with the secretary told reporters that getting such an endorsement had not been “an emphasis” during the meeting.

Mr. Maher, meeting reporters with Mr. Powell after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, insisted that Israel should go along with the plan.

“I think ‘accept’ is not a very difficult word to pronounce,” he said. “The word ‘accept’ is not a dirty word.”

Mr. Maher also rejected American efforts to isolate Yasser Arafat, the beleaguered Palestinian leader with whom the United States broke all contacts a year ago.

Mr. Arafat “is the elected leader of the Palestinian people,” and Mr. Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen, “is the prime minister chosen by him and confirmed by the legislative assembly,” Egypt’s top diplomat said. “We’ll continue to deal with both of them as representatives of the Palestinian people.”

Mr. Powell urged European and other leaders on Sunday to follow the United States in marginalizing Mr. Arafat.

But Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said he planned to meet with Mr. Arafat during a visit to the region that began yesterday. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also will visit the Palestinian leader on May 26, the Palestinian Authority announced.

Mr. Powell thanked Egypt for help in getting Mr. Abbas appointed and confirmed. He also said the United States would rely on Cairo’s assistance in reforming the Palestinian infrastructure, particularly its security services — an appeal he repeated last night during a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman.

Before flying to Cairo yesterday morning, Mr. Powell attended a working-group meeting in Jerusalem of the Quartet for Middle East peace — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — which is the sponsor of the road map.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the United States would not “negotiate” the terms of the peace plan, despite Israel’s appeal for several specific changes.

“We are more than happy to hear the comments of the parties and, in fact, we are beginning to hear those comments,” she said in an interview with Reuters news agency. “But the road map is simply a way to carry out the president’s June 24 vision, and we don’t want to spend time negotiating the road map.”

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